Fat Boy Memories (How You Relate to Food and Weight)

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Fat boy heaven. Burger with bacon and mac & cheese. (Photo by Vladimir Bunoan)

I was a fat kid. At around ten or 11 years old, I reached 140 pounds. I had my share of teasing from classmates: “Baboy! Baboy! (Pig! Pig!)” I woke up from bed one day, and the whole world was spinning. I went for a check-up with my pediatrician. The diagnosis was simple: I was overweight. I needed to lose weight. First order of the doctor was to reduce my food intake. I left the hospital in tears. That was a big heartbreak for a kid who loved to eat. The thought of dieting was shattering and cruel.

But even as a kid, I was very determined and driven. I could sum up the strength and discipline to attain a goal. So I went on a diet and exercised like crazy every day. I would get weighed during my regular medical check-ups. What started as a gradual weight loss would become more dramatic in the next couple of months. My family members and school teachers all marveled at the change. I became intoxicated with the high of losing weight.

When adolescence kicked-in, I realized that the body goes all weird. I started eating ravenously again. I couldn’t help it. The surprising thing was, no matter how much I stuffed into my face, I didn’t get fat. All the baby fat just went away. I grew so, so skinny, my family members thought I was addicted to drugs. A well-meaning aunt approached me with a look of grave concern and asked me if I had a problem and needed help. It was amusing.

And so it was pretty much that way from high school all the way to early adulthood. I could eat as much as I want, and remain stick thin. In college, I would eat a full rice meal for lunch. Still hungry afterwards, I would wolf down a cheeseburger. People who witnessed this were livid and envious. They’d ask me, “Where do you hide all of that?” Life is unfair.

But then the reality kicks in one day. As time goes by, your body changes, so does your metabolism. The harsh saying hits you: A moment on the lips, forever on the hips (is this the same as “panandaliang kaligayahan, habambuhay na pagsisisi?”) You start gaining weight by just inhaling the smell of fried chicken. Things aren’t the same anymore. You also become more sedentary when the daily rhythm of work sets in. And as responsibilities of adulthood grow, so do your love handles.

Food as best friend, as enemy

I look back at my relationship with food and weight, and while there were long periods of normalcy, there were also extremes. As an only child, I had no competition when it came to food. When there were leftovers, I had the privilege (or responsibility) of wiping out the dish. I don’t think my brain had the chance to process if I was already satisfied or not. Being done meant licking the serving dish clean.

When I went on a diet, food suddenly turned evil: It made you fat. Avoid at all cost. Pleasure in eating went flying out the window. Self-deprivation became the norm.

But there were also moments when food became a source of comfort — a lot of comfort. It became the antidote to stress, insecurity, anxiety, sadness, boredom, emptiness, despair. On many instances, while working on the late-evening shift, I would come home, the house all dark, and the rice cooker would be my friend. I would eat a full meal at 1 or 2 in the morning, then go to bed right after. Not very healthy.

I am reminded by the runaway bestselling book “French Women Don’t Get Fat” by Mireille Guiliano. It’s not a diet book. What would life be to the French without croissants and baguettes, chocolate and Champagne? Food is not the enemy. The key is reasonable pleasure in everything in life, including food. Food should not induce shame or guilt. It must be enjoyed slowly and in the right quantity, preferably using seasonal ingredients that are well-prepared. Eating should also be balanced with lots of exercise.

The struggle for fitness

If there’s a book about French women, I came across an article about a supposed manuscript entitled “The Real Reason Gay Men Don’t Get Fat.”  Why do a lot of gay men go on crazy diets, and spend hours in the gym trying to achieve a well-toned body? The article says that most gay men are essentially in love with themselves. They recreate their bodies into their vision of an ideal mate. And the thinking is that the only way to attract a partner with well-defined biceps, pecs and abs is to have them yourself. Provocative thoughts, arguable for some.

I had put off going to the gym for the longest time. I thought I could not sustain the motivation needed to thrive in these temples of body worship. I thought that I needed a deeper push, something that went beyond the surface.

One day, during a time when I was seeking guidance and wisdom, a wellness and meditation expert asked me how I took care of my five bodies (I didn’t even think we had five bodies): the physical, astral, mental, emotional and spiritual. I had no answer for the physical aspect. It’s been a long time since I stopped doing cardio exercises at home (hip-hop, zumba, cardio kung fu). I was basically in inertia. You have to work your body, she told me. It doesn’t matter if it’s walking, running, whatever, just do something to be active and make sure you do it regularly and consistently. It works hand-in-hand with your spiritual and general well-being, she said.

So there’s the push I was looking for.

I signed up for gym membership within a week, and to make sure I’m consistent and don’t slide back, I got a therapist-trainer. It is a commitment and a lot of hard work. I find myself panting, grunting, huffing and puffing from all the lifting, pulling and pushing, sometimes about to pass out. But it feels great afterwards. There are psychic rewards to knowing that you can push yourself to your limits – it’s very empowering. And the physical rewards are there – strength, endurance, and losing unwanted fats and pounds.

At first, one of the health consultants wanted to drastically influence my diet. If I had followed him to the letter, I wouldn’t even be able to eat tuna and salmon (mercury content) and bangus and tilapia (chemical feeds). I will only be allowed to eat dalagang bukid, ayungin and tamban. I wouldn’t be able to eat supermarket chicken – only the free-range kind. And I wouldn’t be able to eat sweet fruits like mangoes – only low-sugar fruits like siniguelas.

I decided to ditch this restrictive diet plan and just eat healthier and in smaller quantities, more natural, less processed (unpolished brown rice instead of white rice, low glycemic coco sugar instead of refined sugar, soy milk instead of whole milk, saging na saba for snack instead of pastries). And yes, I do treat myself to a good meal in a restaurant at least once a week, but never gorging on food (reasonable pleasure, remember.) I have also discovered a couple of vegetarian restaurants that serve scrumptious, deeply-satisfying food without the guilt.

After all the love-hate when it comes to food (okay, more love than hate), wellness and body image, I hope that this is the start of more good things to come.

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Follow the author on twitter.com/Paulhenson or Instagram @heaveninawildflower

The Pleasures of a Table for One

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Savoring a cocktail in solitude. (Photo by Paul Henson)

It doesn’t matter if you’re single, married, with partner, with family or with lots of friends. Dining out alone is something good to do once in a while. Think about it as taking yourself out on a date. You’re not there to please another person – you’re doing it for yourself. If you take the extra mile to show your spouse/partner/date/friend a great time, don’t you deserve to treat you and yourself alone to something special every now and then?

But why is the prospect of dining out alone terrifying? Just the thought of it gives some people cold sweats and palpitations. Most would shun the idea. Mabuti pang mag-take out na lang kaysa kumain mag-isa (better to just grab food to go than eat out alone.) Too embarrassing, they’d say.

You walk up to the waiter to ask for a table for one, and you get a quizzical look. And when you’re finally shown to your table, you feel as if all eyes are on you. And you’re imagining what people are thinking: Poor thing. All alone. No one to share a meal with.

Guess what. They’re not thinking that. You are.

That’s you thinking you’re not special. That’s you thinking you don’t deserve good things by your lonesome. That’s you being afraid to be alone with your thoughts. Well, if you can’t enjoy being by yourself, you won’t be any good in the company of someone else.

There are many benefits to enjoying a lovely meal by yourself. For one, service is faster. The servers are more attentive to you, and when the chef is finished preparing your food, it gets to your table in a flash even before you’re halfway through your cocktail. There’s no need to time the food service, unlike when you’re in a group.

Dining by yourself also gives you the opportunity to disconnect, to be off the grid, even just for an hour or so. It’s a great time to set aside your mobile device and just revel in the bliss of having this personal time and space. You can let your thoughts wander. You can enjoy your food and wine as leisurely as you want. You can even have dessert and espresso. Go ahead… No one can stop you.

Being alone encourages you to be centered, to be in the zone. You set aside distractions and you become one with the moment. This is something that’s so difficult to do in our hyper-connected and multi-tasking world. When you’re free from all the noise, you notice things that you take for granted.

The flavors of the food become more pronounced. You appreciate the delicate balance of sweetness and acidity of the balsamic vinegar, the earthy quality of the truffle oil, the lovely combination of bittersweet chocolate with mint.

It’s a good time as any to people watch when you’re dining alone, but discreetly, I should say. You notice the nuances of relationships. Those two are just on the awkward getting-to-know-you stage, those two are intoxicated with their blossoming romance, those two have been married for 20 years. Those two dudes are best friends, but those two are secret lovers, for sure. That table is celebrating a birthday, that table is having a baby shower.

You also notice that not everyone in that restaurant is automatically happy just because they’re with someone. It can be a big family, a group of friends, a couple, but they’re not talking. Their eyes are transfixed on their smartphones, fiddling away aimlessly. Or their eyes are just wandering with a blank, expressionless look.

Perhaps the best part of having time for yourself in a restaurant setting is the gift of being able to love yourself. There’s no need to feel guilty or insecure. You deserve to treat yourself because you’re special, and because you are your own best friend.

In that brief period of solitude, you can come face to face with your innermost thoughts and be as light and as whimsical as you want, or as introspective as you wish. And by the time you ask for your cheque, you will realize that dining alone is not so bad after all. It’s actually good, and is something you should have started doing sooner.

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(Follow the author on twitter.com/Paulhenson or Instagram @heaveninawildflower)